The story of Michael Phelps might get old after a while for some people, what with the endorsement deals and Saturday Night Live appearances and tabloid scandals.
But when it comes to what happens in the pool, there’s plenty still to be written in what is already the most illustrious story in swimming and Olympic history.
Saturday’s 100 m Butterfly final at the World Championships showed the epitome of what Phelps — as a sports icon — is all about. It was a race that, were it not for the Phelps-mania that swept the country last summer, would have gone largely unnoticed by most of us who don’t spend hours a day combing the sports pages. While it lacked the Olympic stage that Phelps shone so brightly on a year ago, it may have been one of the greatest races you will ever see from him.
The backdrop was straight out of a blockbuster sports movie: a rematch of the Olympic final against Serbian Milorad Cavic, who Phelps touched out by one-hundredth of a second for his seventh gold. Cavic, playing the villain, repeatedly admitted that he still didn’t believe Phelps had actually gotten his fingers on the wall first in Beijing. The American-born Serbian even offered to buy Phelps a new polyurethane suit like his own after Phelps said he would stick with his Speedo suit rather than the newer rubberized suit. And topping it off was Cavic’s performance in the semifinals, where he finished with the top time, 50.01 seconds, and a new world record.
The race more than lived up to its hype. Cavic, as usual, held the lead at the turn after going out in 22.69 seconds (just off the 22.68 he put up in wining in 50 Fly gold earlier in the week). And Phelps, just as he did in the Water Cube, came storming back to touch his rival out, becoming the first man to break 50 seconds in the event with a world record time of 49.82.
The celebration from the usually mild-mannered and unostentatious Phelps was the most telling sign of what this race meant. He had played it low key all week, sticking to the refrain that he would let his performance in the pool do the talking. But after the race, he climbed up onto the lane line and looked into the stands with both hands displaying his supposedly low-tech suit.
While this race will never have the significance of the duel with Cavic in Beijing, it nonetheless serves as a defining highlight in Phelps lore. It’s the storybook situation—somewhat of an underdog, against a hostile opponent, the quiet hero—where the protagonist Phelps had to, just had to win to show everyone he is the infallible superstar.
He did. And once again, we are left in utter amazement.
–Matthew De George ’10